The Department of Defense has a very clear message to the American public: Shut up for a second and let us wage forever war in peace.
New Air Force public affairs guidance, published on March 1 and first reported by Defense News, details a broad freeze in media access, from reporter embeds and base visits to appearances at public events, and a lengthy retraining period for all public affairs officers. The service is planning a reported four-month withdrawal after which it will re-emerge as an even more opaque institution that will stymie taxpayers’ ability to both understand and support it.
“In today’s challenging information environment marked by great power competition, we will continue to be as transparent with the American public as possible while protecting sensitive information on our operations and capabilities,” Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas told Defense News. “We owe both to the public, and it is vitally important for the public to understand what we are doing on their behalf and with their tax dollars.”
“Our units are going through operational security training so we’ve limited some engagements until the training is complete. As units finish their training, they are being cleared to continue engagements and base visits. Many have already done so.” Air Force spokesman Ann Stefanek told Task & Purpose. “In the meantime, all units are responding to questions. We remain committed to being as open and responsive as possible to the media and the American public while protecting operational security.”
Operational security is no joke. Indeed, the guidance explicitly cited several recent failures detailed in accompanying slides, first obtained and published in the popular Facebook community Air Force amn/nco/snco: A December 2017 Fox News story allegedly detailed a worrying maintenance breakdown during B-1B sorties in the Pacific; a January 2018 Guardian story purportedly provided insights into how the service attacks targets worldwide; and a February 2018 Denver Post story on a secretive space center near Colorado Springs that “inadvertently identified a national center of gravity” to potential enemies. The Air Force has yet to explain how these three instances put U.S. service members in any actual danger.
But totally freezing out the American public for four months under the auspices of “operational security” is a joke considering the American public bears the cost for the pivot back Afghanistan, ever-expanding global counter-ISIS fight, and ever-present threats from North Korea and Russia. Beyond that, it’s the culmination of a year-long retreat by Pentagon flaks from the cold, hard judgment of informed voters (and, more importantly, taxpayers) from whom military planners are extorting billions for more Forever Wars.
To recap, the Trump administration announced in March 2017 that it would no longer disclose upcoming troop deployments to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. The decision was made “on order to maintain tactical surprise, ensure operational security and force protection,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said at the time. The following August, Trump used the much-awaited unveiling of his Afghan war strategy to curb disclosures regarding troop levels for Operation Resolute Support there — less than two months after officially handing “total authority” (and total responsibility!) to Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
It’s worth noting that these decisions don’t just apply to brigade or platoon-level movements that could actually give an enemy an advantage, but basic things like, y’know, how long this whole war thing may drag on. “I’ve said many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military operations,” Trump said at the time. “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.”
Naturally, the fish rots from the head: The favorite slur of “fake news” has spread through all levels of American government, down from the commander in chief, and the military services are apparently following suit. In October 2017, Mattis sent a strong warning to DoD personnel warning against leaks and urging efforts “to prevent unauthorized disclosure of non-public information,” despite the fact that many innocuous non-public documents (memos and itineraries and whatnot) are unclassified and offer little by way of operational security. The memo, as government accountability and transparency advocates, told Military Times, would likely result in a major “chilling effect” among potential whistleblowers who are essential for uncovering fraud and abuse, and gaining traction for important projects like Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles that will save troops’ lives.
The Air Force isn’t the first branch to take flak for its clampdown on press relations: Way back in March 2017, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson instructed public affairs officers to clamp down discussions of the service’s readiness and warfighting capabilities And in January 2018, naval warfare analyst and former Defense News correspondent Chris Cavas detailed what he described as an “information chill” permeating the Navy’s public affairs apparatus. Here’s how he described his experience:
Media requests have become routinely stifled, delayed or denied. Interviews no longer take two or three weeks to arrange — two or three months has become the norm, if at all. A recent development, according to many reporters, is for interviews becoming qualified at the last moment. “We can’t talk about XXX,” officials tell reporters, sometimes a day or less before an appointment, “but we understand if you’ll want to cancel the interview.”
\Another tactic to delay or avoid responding to questions is for officials to claim: “We don’t want to get out ahead of leadership,” meaning a topic or program can’t be discussed until higher-ups explain their position. But the higher-ups repeat the assertion, and the request is kicked up multiple levels to the point where executives don’t discuss such things because it’s simply beneath their level.
The two Trump administration announcements, the Mattis memo, the Navy memo, and the Air Force memo are a bureaucratic finger over the lips of Pentagon public affairs officials who in conversations with Task & Purpose emphasize, again and again, that they just want to get the right facts out. But by embracing silence, they stifle efforts to uncover the real news — and provide fertile ground for the kind of “fake news” they supposedly hate to take root.